Deprived of 'a village,' pandemic left new moms anxious, alone

Jodie Abelson-Sommer plays with her daughter, Harley Sommer, in the backyard of their Commack home. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Months after Jodie Abelson-Sommer gave birth to her daughter last August, she was overcome with anxiety. She experienced body tremors and heart palpitations. She cried hysterically and suffered from such severe insomnia that she thought she’d die.

The stress of being pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation resulting from lockdown and social distancing took a toll on her mental health and pushed her into “panic mode," said the Commack teacher and first-time mom, who was later diagnosed with postpartum anxiety.

Abelson-Sommer, 32, is among thousands of women nationally who gave birth during the initial waves of the pandemic and reported increased mental health challenges, including insomnia, intrusive thoughts and panic attacks. Trapped inside their homes, the women couldn't tap into traditional support systems — from family to new mothers' groups — that were available pre-pandemic. They also faced challenges with job security and the rising cost of baby care products. 

Nearly 1 in 3
pregnant women reported being highly stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Brittain Mahaffey at Stony Brook University Hospital, who is working on a study of more than 7,400 women across the United States examining how pandemic-induced stress affects the health of new mothers and babies, said women who gave birth during the first two waves experienced increased anxiety, depression and OCD symptoms. Mahaffey estimates about one-third of women in the study reported they were "highly stressed" about the pandemic and many were concerned about altering their birth plans. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Moms who gave birth during the pandemic experienced increased anxiety and mental health concerns.
  • They lacked access to traditional support groups due to lockdown and social distancing. 
  • Finances, job security and the rising cost of baby care items compounded their stress.

Wendi Andria, a lactation program manager with Northwell Health, said women entered the delivery room more nervous, noting that although the hospital offered virtual prenatal classes, many didn't take them. 

Northwell’s popular baby cafe, a breastfeeding support group at South Shore and Cohen Children's hospitals, saw a drop in participation since it went virtual in March 2020, Andria said. After Northwell saw an increase in need for mental health resources for new moms, it amped up its postpartum outreach and enlisted baby cafe speakers to discuss mental health. The support group had 489 attendees in 2019, but numbers declined to 221 in 2020 and 144 in 2021, according to data provided by Northwell. 

“We had a very robust postpartum support group before COVID,” Andria said. “Our support group was so successful because moms that didn’t even need help kept coming to support other moms. … The peer support was what made it so successful” and that connection "wasn’t happening anymore."

It is still very isolating and lonely. There’s times when I’m like, ‘I would like to talk to another person.'

— Sarah DeSalvo, 31, of Lindenhurst

The lack of in-person support groups made it difficult for first-time mom Sarah DeSalvo, 31, of Lindenhurst, to befriend other moms. She hoped to meet women with babies the same age as her son, Lucian, who was born in July. DeSalvo joined the baby cafe in August.

“It is still very isolating and lonely,” she said. “There’s times when I’m like, ‘I would like to talk to another person.'"

While the pandemic took a toll on the moms, some also reported benefits. Health care workers found that prohibiting visitors in the delivery room gave women more recovery time and uninterrupted time with their babies. 

'I FELT LIKE I WAS A TERRIBLE MOM'

Jodie Abelson-Sommer of Commack, who gave birth to her daughter last August, said she was prescribed medication to cope with postpartum anxiety and insomnia. But needing to take the medication induced feelings of guilt, she said.  Credit: Morgan Campbell

Jodie Abelson-Sommer was prescribed medication to cope with postpartum anxiety and insomnia. But needing to take the medication induced feelings of guilt, she said. 

“I felt like I was a terrible mom for needing to go on medicine,” she said. “I wish that a year ago I could have just looked up postpartum anxiety, and there would have been tons and tons of stories of people like me. … I didn’t realize this was a real thing that people really suffer from, but nobody talks about.”

She said her anxiety was caused by pandemic-related stress and fears of becoming ill with the virus.

Isolation worsened her anxiety. After her daughter was born, she rarely left the house and socialized in person only with her husband and parents. She eventually joined online support groups for moms and signed up for virtual classes, but it was not the postpartum experience she'd envisioned.

“I imagined all of my friends meeting my baby,” she said. “I imagined all of these experiences that we were going to have that weren't happening.”

‘ROBBED OF AN EXPERIENCE’

Anna Jackman, 37, of Wheatley Heights, gave birth to Nicholas in June 2020 when vaccines weren’t available and tasks as simple as grocery shopping felt risky. As a first-time mom, she said, "not having a village" of support groups was very hard. When you think about having a baby, especially if it’s your first, you imagine all of these different moments and experiences. … I feel like I was robbed of an experience.” Credit: James Carbone

Anna Jackman, 37, of Wheatley Heights, gave birth to Nicholas in June 2020 when vaccines weren’t available and tasks as simple as grocery shopping felt risky.

“The hard part after birth was doing it all in isolation,” said Jackman, who imagined frequent playdates and trips with her son. “I’m a first-time mom, and not having a village there was very hard. When you think about having a baby, especially if it’s your first, you imagine all of these different moments and experiences. … I feel like I was robbed of an experience.”

She said childbirth amplified her pre-pandemic anxieties and disrupted her birth plan. She was also concerned by maternal mortality rates for Black women, who, studies show, are more than three times more likely to die while pregnant than white women.

Like Jackman, new mom Stephanie Henriques, of Westbury, echoed concerns about mortality rates. As a doula and social worker, she was aware of health disparities that Black women face. The first several months after she gave birth to her daughter were plagued with worries, Henriques said. She suffered from postpartum high blood pressure and wrestled with intrusive — or repetitive and unwanted — thoughts and sought medical help. 

Jackman said her self-diagnosis of a “postpartum identity crisis” led her to pursue her doctorate in school district leadership. “I think I was trying to claim some semblance of my former self,” she said. 

Jackman also joined a support group at the Farmingdale-based Nesting Place.

“You need a village,” she said. “There's a reason why for centuries women after giving birth were a community. … It’s not meant to be done in isolation.”

MOMS GROUP 'A GODSEND'

Tamara Serenita of Islip said she had “a touch of postpartum [depression]” after she delivered her twin daughters in April 2020. Feeling lonely, she joined the Nesting Place, a moms group, which she said “helped to ease the feeling of loneliness. It was a godsend.” Credit: Morgan Campbell

When Tamara Serenita's twin daughters, Amelia and Brenna, were born April 6, 2020, the state's stay-at-home order was extended. Soon afterward, her husband, a truck driver, was laid off.

Around then, Serenita, 44, of Islip, started suffering from constant panic attacks. “I didn’t even know what was going on. … I remember very vividly pacing and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. 

Serenita also felt paranoid and couldn't sleep, which, she said, she didn't experience after giving birth to her first child, Madelyn, five years ago. 

Plans for daily outings to the zoo or beach, or mommy and me classes evaporated, which contributed to what she said was “a touch of postpartum [depression].” Feeling lonely, Serenita joined the Nesting Place after posting about her struggles on social media, where she bonded with other moms.

“If it wasn’t for all these online things, we literally would have been lost,” she said. “It helped to ease the feeling of loneliness. It was a godsend.”

'IT REALLY DOES TAKE A VILLAGE'

Dr. Thalia Robakis, who coleads the women's mental health program at Mount Sinai Hospital, said even as we enter the "new normal" phase of the pandemic, isolation continues to be a problem for mothers who have children under 5 years old, since they cannot get vaccinated. That and other pandemic-related stressors create a "domino effect" for family members, she said. 

Robakis urged mothers not to "suffer in silence" in their mental health struggles and to seek out professional help.

“It's been this very extended long-term inability to access the normal supports that you would have for child care," she said. "It really does take a village. That’s not just something that somebody said. Suddenly in COVID, the village was gone, and it’s been very difficult to resurrect.”

Resources for new parents

If you're a new parent, resources are available for postpartum care, mental health, breastfeeding and more. 

  • Check with your local OBGYN's office, or the hospital where you gave birth, to see what classes and groups they offer. 
  • The Parent Collective offers online education and support classes for moms. 
  • The Nesting Place in Farmingdale offers classes, including ones for mental health, breastfeeding and postpartum. 
  • The Postpartum Resource Center of New York has a statewide helpline for moms at 631-422-2255 where they can share free resources, support and education.
  • The Suffolk County Department of Health Services — Maternal and Infant Community Health Collaborative offers resources for women and mothers. 
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